The world of sports is changing its tune on marijuana. Under the new proposed Collective Bargaining Agreement, NFL players will no longer be suspended for positive drug tests, including marijuana; Kevin Durant has become the first superstar athlete to publicly advocate for NBA players to use cannabis as medical treatment; and Major League Baseball removed cannabis from its banned substances list, though the league quietly reminded players not to show up high to stadiums.
As these professional leagues change their polices, will college sports do the same? The NCAA and major universities still test student-athletes for marijuana use. Should they fail, it automatically results in a six-game suspension for players. This comes at a time when many major football and basketball programs in college sports reside in states with medical marijuana or adult-use legalization.
Like in Oklahoma, for example, which has more dispensaries than any state in the country. Last year, three University of Oklahoma football players were suspended for positive marijuana tests at the end of the season. Responding to a question about the status of those players at a press conference, OU football head coach Lincoln Riley discussed “the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”
“As far as marijuana testing, we’re operating in a different world than it was 10-15 years ago. Laws, availability, perception of it, everything’s changed,” Riley said. “So I think we need to adapt, too. We’re certainly from our end trying to study if what we are doing is working.”
Riley told reporters that universities should focus more on “the welfare of the student-athlete,” according to The Athletic. Under that protocol, teams would treat marijuana use more like alcohol and only intervene should substance abuse issues arise. This is similar to the NHL’s current drug policy.
“To maybe give you an idea of some of the talks we’ve had, let’s say we had a player, maybe, that had an issue with abusing alcohol,” Riley said. “It’s not necessarily illegal from an NCAA standard, this and that. We would sit down and talk to this player. We would get him counseling. We would approach it more from a wellness and … being healthy for the rest of your life and putting yourself in good situations, helping you perform athletically, academically, all those things. We tried to do everything we could.
“And I don’t know that we’ve all necessarily been able to do that with marijuana, specifically because of the ramification of a guy testing positive.”
Believe it or not, punishment used to be worse for college athletes who failed a drug test. A positive marijuana test previously resulted in a full-year suspension, which the NCAA reduced to six games four years ago. The NCAA also doubled the threshold for what constitutes a positive marijuana test. Those suspensions can create lasting damage in a player’s ability to improve and reach professional sports. In addition, publicity around a student-athlete’s failed marijuana test can negatively impact future job opportunities outside sports.
Riley believes players should be given help if they need it, and it should be done without any announcement to media or fans.
“It’s made it kind of the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about,” said Riley. “Like we do with every part of our program, we’re trying to evolve. We’re not saying, ‘Well, we’ve just always done it like this, so that’s how we’ll do it.’ We’re trying to improve and make sure we’re doing everything we can for our student-athletes. I don’t know that I have all the answers right now. These are evolving, and it’s something we’ll continue to look at to make sure we’re doing the best that we can.”
College sports will inevitably change — as professional sports have — in attitudes and penalties surrounding marijuana. But when that will happen is anyone’s best guess, according to Riley.
“If you look at the trends in other sports, I think you would certainly say probably sooner rather than later,” he said. “It just seems to be the way that the world’s going.”